Faculty Feature: Q & A with Michael Maffie

Our newsletter features a faculty member question and answer section where you can learn more about our professors' research projects, ongoing studies, and hobbies! This month, get to know Assistant Professor of Labor and Employment Relations, Michael Maffie.

Michael Maffie is an assistant professor of labor and employment relations. He earned his doctorate from Cornell University.
What are your areas of expertise and research, and how did you decide to focus on these areas? 

"I specialize in the areas of the gig economy and algorithmic management. Algorithms are usually written by a company with little or no worker input into the design or implementation of these systems. As a result, we see the hallmarks of workplaces without worker voice: strikes, slowdowns, litigation, and other forms of industrial conflict. My research looks at how worker voice can be incorporated into the design of these systems."             

How does your research provide insight into elements that affect the workforce?

"We tend to think of online platforms as questions of technology. What my research finds is that they are also about the relationship between workers and platforms. You could even say that Uber inadvertently created one of the largest labor-management problem in the world.

"I explore this idea in my most recent project. For a long time, you would hear that Lyft was the 'good' platform for drivers while Uber treated drivers poorly. This was because Lyft had a few features that drivers really liked, like tipping. Yet in 2017, Uber decided to basically copy the Lyft driver system its in '180 Days of Change' program. Since then, Uber and Lyft basically mimicked each other’s every move. Why did Uber and Lyft operate differently for five years and then suddenly converge into basically indistinguishable services? My research finds that, before Uber’s 180 Days program, workers were gradually shifting their labor over to Lyft and recruiting Uber passengers for the Lyft. Drivers were using their power to reshape the market because Lyft had a better set of work policies compared to its larger competitor.

"For HR practitioners, you could think of Uber as one big labor-management problem: You need people to show up to work but you do not want to direct them to do so. Furthermore, platforms don’t offer promotions, training, or benefits. And you have several very similar competitors. The question here is: what do workers want? This is the value of worker voice; it allows platforms to build better algorithms for both workers and companies."

What current research projects have you been working on?

"I'm working on a project to measure worker voice in the gig economy and another project with Dr. Gough that looks at workers’ bargaining power in the gig economy."

How do societies, businesses, or communities benefit from your research? 

"When new work systems emerge, I think it’s important to parse what is new from what is just a new coat of paint. Silicon Valley has expended a lot of energy trying to convince legislators and the public that platforms are a radically new form of work. I’m not so sure this is the case. My research finds that some of the enduring elements of work, like workers’ desire to have a say in their work, are still present in the 'gig' economy. When worker voice is ignored, we still see industrial conflict. In fact, the piece-rate and timed nature of 'gig' work makes this form of labor look much closer to workplaces from 1920 than 2020.

"I think the optimism of the 'gig' economy ran far ahead of the reality and now we are trying to figure out what to do now that the shine has come off these platforms. Instead of treating these services as exceptional, my research suggests we need to treat them as normal workplaces. That means that workers need to have a say in the way they are treated when they log into an app."

What are some of your hobbies outside of work? 

"Tennis and running!"

May 15, 2020